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The Hague Nuclear Security Summit: Will The Momentum Persist?

By Expert Author: Suba Chandran

The Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) process demonstrates a genuine effort to ward off nuclear terrorism by urging States to develop global security standards, recommend best practices, and hold each other accountable. While Obama’s efforts to draw greater attention to developing a global nuclear security culture is commendable, the process, at the level of heads of State, ends with the last Summit, to be held in Chicago in 2016. At The Hague, Obama declared that post 2016, the process would continue at the ministerial level, which is a welcome move to maintain international focus on nuclear security.

The joint communiqués of the past three Summits have identified benchmarks for international standards of best practice. Is this momentum likely to persist? What are the challenges that may be faced?

The Summit Process

This Summit, held every year since 2010, is one of its kind in that there is no similar high-level global forum for the discussion of nuclear security. In ‘Maintaining High Level Focus on Nuclear Security’ (Mark Fitzpatrick and Jasper Pandza, February 2012, for US-Korea Institute at Saia, Johns Hopkins University) argue that over the past few years, the NSS has worked towards strengthening the international norm of nuclear security. They cite William Tobey, who says, “….nations should constantly be looking to improve their efforts in this field.”

However, much of the success of the Summits has been attributed to the high-level of political participation and the concomitant international focus it garners. Due to this kind of unprecedented pressure, the NSS managed to act as an ‘enforcer’ to induce States to behave a certain way. Simply put, once the NSS comes to an end, and in the absence of visible political pressure, States could shy away from nuclear security if there is a demonstrable lack of need and critical infrastructure to address gaps. This could be credited to dwindling political will, monetary constraints, and/or a desire to focus on more immediate politico-security issues.

If, despite the end of the NSS, there is a willingness to sustain the momentum created by the NSS, a variety of challenges will nonetheless be faced in implementing the best practices that have come to inform the international norm of nuclear security.


First, commitments – pledges and ‘gift baskets’ - made at the NSS are on the good faith principle and owing to the high political visibility of the NSS. Post the NSS, there will be no incentive (apart from the actual threat and occurrence of an act of nuclear terrorism itself) and thereby, will, for commitments to be made. Even in the presence of political will, there is no structured body to track implementation of commitments, apart from the self-assessed National Progress Reports submitted at the NSS.

Second, while sufficient domestic laws may be in place to assure the physical security of nuclear materials, it would also become imperative to adjudge how well these laws are being implemented. With reference to acceptance of international legal instruments, such as ratification of the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials (CPPNM) and its 2005 Amendment, how is compliance guaranteed? This is especially relevant since the conditions of the Amendment are to be enforced at the discretion of the ratifying party. These instruments are not universally implemented and do not have enforcement or accountability mechanisms. Admittedly, the legal foundation for nuclear security is weak.

Third, the increasing tendency to use membership of certain organisations and initiatives as an indicator ofthe seriousness of a State’s commitment to nuclear security, which is becoming a norm in itself, is also problematic because it does not account for State abstention for political reasons. Additionally, how successful have organisations created with the specific goal of addressing nuclear security been so far?

Fourth, concern is also registered about the lack of independent national nuclear regulatory authorities. India, for its part, has yet to pass 2011 Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority (NSRA) Bill, although there has been no known case of a breach yet. It is also known that some states that have ‘independent’ nuclear regulators have had security breaches, insider threats and an observable absence of the separation of powers. What good then is an independent regulator in these circumstances, and how does it better the risk environment? In addition, the nature of risk or threats itself varies from state to state – although it can of course be argued that there is now a common baseline threat that all States face.

Fifth, nuclear programmes differ from State to State, and are informed by differential nuclear policies. In sharing information of threats and national nuclear security practices, there are likely to be discrepancies. This will be most keenly felt with states that possess nuclear weaponisationprogrammes. Therefore, while international assurances about the level of nuclear security are all very well, the extent of the information will vary. Some States would be willing to make its information public, some may share with the IAEA, and some may not wish to disseminate most aspects of their security to those outside the State establishment that looks after nuclear issues (Matthew Bunn, ‘Strengthening Global Approaches to Nuclear Security’. Paper presented at the International Conference on Nuclear Security: Enhancing Global Efforts – International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna, July 1, 2013).

It must be emphasised that the Nuclear Security Summit process is a welcome move to prompt responsible State behaviour. However, the post-Summit environment is racked with challenges that threaten to overshadow the good work done so far. It is therefore important to first identify these challenges to reach critical international will to sustain past momentum.

For more information, visit: Nuclear Security Summit

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